The New York City Human Rights Law prohibits employment discrimination based on, among other things, an employee’s gender. The law has plainly provided for punitive damages against employers who violate the law. Punitive damages are generally available in cases as a way to dissuade others from engaging in similar unlawful conduct and to punish the wrongdoer. On November 20, 2017, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest state court, settled the standard which courts should apply in deciding whether punitive damages should be allowed in a discrimination case.
In Chauca v. Abraham, the employee was a physical therapy aide. She sued her employer for sex and pregnancy discrimination, under the federal law Title VII, under the New York State Human Rights Law, and under the New York City Human Rights Law. At trial, the employee’s lawyer asked the judge to instruct the jury to consider whether punitive damages were appropriate under the New York City Human Rights Law. The court applied Title VII’s punitive damages standard which requires the employee to show malice, reckless indifference, or an intent to violate the law. The court determined that the employee did not show any evidence of intent so the judge refused to instruct the jury to consider imposing punitive damages.
The employee appealed the court’s decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, New York’s federal appellate court. The Second Circuit had previously held that Title VII’s standard applies to the New York City Human Rights law, but in Chauca, the court questioned whether that decision was correct in light of subsequent amendments to the New York City Human Rights Law which instructs courts to liberally construe the law. As the issue invoked questions of state law, the Second Circuit certified the question to the New York Court of Appeals. In other words, the federal court asked the state court to interpret the the city law.
The New York Court of Appeals looked at the language of the Human Rights Law. It determined that the statute provides for compensatory and punitive damages. It further determined that an employer can mitigate punitive damages by proving it maintains policies to deter discrimination. The court, however, did not find that the law provided a standard for when punitive damages should be assessed against the employer.
The employee argued that the legislative intent of the Human Rights Law requires that punitive damages should be available to any employee who proves discrimination. The court disagreed and held that punitive damages are available only when “aggravating factors demonstrate an additional level of wrongful conduct.”
The court, however, also rejected the employer’s argument that Title VII’s standard was appropriate. The court noted that the New York City council adopted amendments to the City Human Rights Law to ensure it would be liberally construed in favor of plaintiffs. The court relied on the state’s common law standard for punitive damages. In sum, the court determined that punitive damages are available for employees who can show the employer “has engaged in discrimination with wilful or wanton negligence, or recklessness, or ‘a conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such a disregard.'”
Notably, one judge dissented in the decision. The judge noted that the common law standard was not included anywhere in the Human Rights Law and so it was error to apply that standard instead of the most plaintiff-friendly standard available.
If you have questions about punitive damages or employment discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law, the New York State Human Rights, or Title VII, contact a Long Island employment lawyer at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC at 631-352-0050. Our website is http://linycemploymentlaw.com.
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